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#EndSARSProtests: A Chronicle of Nigeria’s #BlackLivesMatter

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The chilling murder of African-American, George Floyd, back in May, by a couple of ‘white’ police officers in Minneapolis, the United States, would go down as one of the defining moments of 2020. Not only did the unnerving incident further expose the century-old racial cleavages among Americans, it also resulted in weeks of a universal eruption of riots and protests to demand racial equality in America and beyond.

Watching Nigerian youth take to the streets to force an end to police misdemeanours reminds one of the events – which are still ongoing in some cities – in the US after Floyd’s murder. So far, close to a dozen lives have been lost, some fallen to police bullets, since the outbreak of the protests.

Throughout the organic settings of human existence, how to secure lives and maintain social decorum formed a major strand of communal concerns. It is for this reason that, at different stages of mankind’s evolution, the task of security remains atop of other considerations.

According to history, the term ‘police’ is derived from the Latin word ‘polis which loosely translates into the ‘public’. Its popularity is traced to the era of the Greek dominance of world affairs, although the act of policing was first introduced by Egyptian Pharaohs, around 3000BC, to guarantee peace amongst their subjects.

Except for a brief age during the reigns of the Roman Empire when ex-convicts and men of unsound morals were given the policing responsibility, societies the world over always reserve the job of police to untainted individuals simply because they carry an extended authority of a State. In other words, the legitimacy of the political authority in a given society is reflected in the police as an institution. 

A Test of Political Legitimacy

Talking of political legitimacy, the echelon of Nigeria’s leadership appears to be in complete disarray these past days. It has been a period of an unexpected and ceaseless gush of rage by young adults who, for once, surmount the courage to brace the socio-political odds. For far too long, governments across Africa’s Sahara region seemed insulated from mass angst.

While popular citizens’ protests landed like a hurricane and swept away long-standing dictators in North Africa: Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, political leaders in other regions of Africa escaped the wrath, but only for another day. For the Nigerian youth, the discontent being expressed through the viral #EndSARSProtests is an exhibition of their accumulated frustration against the social inequality and economic deprivations which successive administrations have visited on them.

As usual of leadership from whose grasp power is drifting, the Nigerian government has yielded its hitherto uncompromising posture to assuage the angry youth, but only to be confronted with increased resistance on the streets, daily.

Police as Colonial Construct

For the protesting youth, while their civic role in fixing a particular malady has drawn worldwide applause, it would be more appreciable for all to realize that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit was(is) a mirror through which the larger tumult within the Nigeria Police Force can be viewed. And to extend that elucidation, it is equally pertinent to be told that the problem with the police in Nigeria is as old as the existence of the country.

The western-styled police system as introduced to Nigeria in 1930 by British colonialists was meant – as a protective force – to safeguard the interests of Britain in an alien land. This instrument of colonial construct was established when the Britons stole power and relegated traditional rulers after their conquest of the colony, hence only the stern, unyielding, and unsympathetic are allowed a lapel as police recruits in those days.

With 12,000-men in 1960, the already maligned status of the police became more stunted post-independence, especially when the military took charged of Nigerian affairs in 1966. The police were denied access to adequate funding, basic professional equipment, commensurate remuneration, timely training of personnel, and so forth. Over time, being called a police officer became unappealing to the best brains academically and morally, thus the floodgates were opened largely to unpolished, uneducated, poorly trained persons who see the force as the last route to survival while living in squalors in the name of barracks.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that the police have over the years maintained the unenviable status of the ‘most corrupt’ public institution in Nigeria. In November 2005, a former boss of the police, Tafa Balogun, escaped with a slap on the wrist in the form of six-month imprisonment upon conviction for stealing $100million because – according to the trial judge – the guilty had “shown remorse”. Apparently embarrassed by the brazen degeneration of security across the country, some State Executives in Nigeria recently resorted to launching sub-national security outfits with a mandate similar to that of the ineffective federal government-controlled police force.

Whilst that decision is contested as provincial insubordination to the national government which may eventually spell doom for the county considering its fragility, many see it – nonetheless – as the most fitting response to a social haemorrhage which Abuja lacks the capacity to fix.

Litany of Rights Violations

Earlier in the year, Amnesty International had documented 82 cases of violations of human rights by officers of the dreaded SARS unit between January 2017 and May 2020 hammering on the urgency for reforms and calling for justice to victims of the assaults which include extortion, torture, rape, and killing. In the same vein, the World Internal Security and Police Index (WISPI) ranked Nigeria “the worst performing country” globally in terms of policing in its 2016 report in which concerns were raised that: “There are 219 police officers to 100,000 Nigerians”.

Although the Nigerian government had in 2017 signed the Anti-Torture Act into law, yet the reality on the ground contradicts the letters of the law. Many of the abuses recorded by Amnesty’s investigation into the operations of SARS revealed a similar pattern of excruciating body and mental torture of victims in the hands of the security agents. A 2020 documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) entitled “The Torture Virus detailed how Nigerian security operatives, including members of the defunct SARS, regularly employ a painful torture technique called ‘tabay’ on suspects in their custody.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that as many as 150,000 of the current 400,000 personnel in the Nigeria Police serve as personal guards to Very Important Personalities (VIPs), mostly politicians, musicians, moguls, expatriates etc; basically to anyone and everyone who can personally afford to service the personnel financially. This leaves the policing obligations of the majority of the estimated 200million population to an insignificant 250,000 police officers, representing a ratio of 1 police officer to 668 persons, a far cry from the United Nations’ standard of one police to 400 persons.

It remains to be seen how the faltering political authority in Nigeria is able to turn the table in the face of a popular resentment by the youth. However, it is safe to presume that, judging by the latest happenings, the younger mass of Nigeria’s population would henceforth refuse to be pacified with the superficial lullabies of the past.

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‘Full scale’ humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

A “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday. 

More than 27,000 have now crossed into Sudan through crossing points in Kassala and Gedaref states, as well as a new location further south at Aderafi, where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend, according to UNHCR

The scale of the influx is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years, according to the agency. 

“Women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” said Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson, briefing reporters in Geneva. 

“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings”, he added. 

According to news reports, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has indicated the military operation that was launched in response to the reported occupation of a Government military base by Tigrayan forces nearly two weeks ago, would continue, although he said it was now in its “final phase”.  

‘Needs continue to grow’ 

UN agencies, along with relief partners have ramped up assistance – delivering food rations, hot meals and clean water, as well as setting up latrines and temporary shelters. They are also supporting the Sudanese Government in its response. But the needs continue to grow.  

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also supporting other humanitarian workers in its response, providing fuel for vehicles and generators in remote locations. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, managed by WFP, has also increased flights from three times per week to daily flights for aid workers. 

Since Saturday, UNHCR has relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site, in eastern Sudan. There is however, a “critical need” to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and can access assistance and services, said Mr. Baloch. 

UNHCR has also issued an emergency fundraising appeal, through which people can help provide urgent, lifesaving assistance to refugees. Click here to make a donation

‘On standby’ in Tigray 

Meanwhile in the Tigray region of Ethiopia itself, lack of electricity, telecommunications, fuel and cash, continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response, the UNHCR spokesperson said.  

“After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance,” he said. 

UNHCR and partners are on standby to provide assistance to the displaced in Tigray, including basic items, when access and security allow. 

The conflict is also a major ongoing concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who are reliant on assistance from UNHCR and partners.  

“Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility … The humanitarian situation as result of this crisis is growing rapidly” he warned, reiterating UNCHR’s call for peace and urge all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.

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Russia to Build Naval Facility in Sudan

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Emerging from the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi a year ago, Russia will make one huge stride by establishing a naval facility in Sudan. This marks its maritime security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region. Sharing a northern border with Egypt, Sudan is located on the same strategic coastline along the Red Sea.

According to the executive order, the published document says “the proposal from the government of the Russian Federation to sign an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan on creating a facility of the Navy of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Republic of Sudan be adopted.”

It also authorizes “the Defense Ministry of Russia to sign the aforementioned agreement on behalf of the Russian Federation.” The document stipulates that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including “naval ships with the nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms.”

Earlier, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the draft agreement on establishing a naval logistics base in Sudan and gave instructions to submit the proposal to the president for signing. The draft agreement on the naval logistics facility was submitted by Russia’s Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia and preliminary agreed with the Sudanese side.

As the draft agreement says, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries.”

The signing of the document by the Russia president shows the positive results of negotiations, the possibility of constructing a naval base in the region, over the years with African countries along the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean.

During a visit by then-President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir to Moscow in November 2017, agreements were reached on Russia’s assistance in modernizing the Sudanese armed forces. Khartoum also said at the time it was interested in discussing the issue of using Red Sea bases with Moscow.

On the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Russia had a naval base in Somalia during the Soviet days. Currently, Djibouti hosts Chinese and American naval bases. China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. In order to protect its commercial sea-lanes from piracy, it has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean.

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Will South Sudan follow its northern neighbour’s lead?

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As the world watches to see whether President Trump accepts the US election results, few have noticed thatcivil war is looming in Ethiopia, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he was sending troops to the Tigray province. This imperils not only Africa’s second most populous state but its neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, as well.

Sudan has had a good run recently and is in a better position to weather any regional conflict. In a surprise movelast month, President Trump announced Sudan’s removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SST)in exchange for normalising relations with Israel. The US is understood to have sweetened the deal with a raft of economic and political incentives, including humanitarian assistance and high-level trade delegations. It would also support Sudan in its discussions with international finance institutions on economic and debt relief.

Since the toppling of President Bashir in 2019, the new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Hamdok, has focused on reviving Sudan’s economy and managing its $60bn debt burden. Hamdok faces a severe economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation and the worst flooding in decades, that has affected more than 800,000 people and destroyed homes and large tracts of farmland just before the harvest. Food, bread and medicine are in short supply.

Thesanctions removal means that Sudan can now expect substantial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bankand unlock investment into its fledgling economy.

This is good news for Sudan. But where does it leave its neighbour, South Sudan?

The international community had high hopes for South Sudan when it announced independence in 2011. But its optimism was misplaced. It never understood the Sudanese conflict that began with British colonialism and erupted after the British left in 1956. It wasn’t just a war between the Government of Sudan and the southern Sudanese rebels. Nor was it a fight between the Islamic North and the Christian South. It was a fight over resources and power.

South Sudan continues to fight. After its first post-independence civil war in 2013 and its endless cycle of violence and retribution, South Sudan is now as unstable as it was before it seceded from Sudan. To accommodate the different factions and keep old military men in power, the South Sudanese government and bureaucracy is peopled with those loyal to the former rebels.

Few have the skills needed to manage the country properly. They have squandered their oil opportunity, through mismanagement and corruption. With falling oil growth demand, oil is unlikely to remaina sustainable revenue source. This will challenge the South Sudanese economy which is 90% reliant on oil.

South Sudan is also facing multiple sanctions. In 2014, the international communityimposed travel bans and asset freezes, as well as an arms embargo. In 2018, the EU designated sanctions against individuals involved in serious human rights violations, alarmed  by “the outbreak of a destructive conflict between the Government of South Sudan and opposition forces in December 2013.” Most recently, the US added First Vice President of South Sudan, Taban Deng Gai to its Global Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Idry.

If US foreign policy towards Sudan was driven by religious and ideological interests in the 1990s and 2000s, what we are now seeing is a shift to transactional diplomacy. There is no reason to think that President Biden would change course.

South Sudan is watching closely. It may be why it has instructed a US lobbying  firm to allegedly lobby for their own sanctions removal. It is also why it welcomed a peace deal between Sudan and five rebel groups in September, paving the way for increased oil export cooperation with its neighbour. 

But stability in the youngest African state is fragile. Even with a recently signed peace agreement between former foes, President Kiir and Vice-President Machar, violence is always lurking. South Sudan is plagued with the same environmental challenges of flooding and poor harvests.  The fighting in Ethiopia will not help. 

As South Sudan looks to the North, it will see a New Sudan, unshackled by the weight of its history and benefitting from international goodwill. Will this encourage South Sudan to look forward instead of back? Or will it unleash demons from the past? 

Let’s hope that the international community pulls itself away from Trump’s horror show and starts paying attention to East Africa. It may be a long winter.

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